Wednesday, August 26, 2015

I'm Pretty Sure a Good Theology of Joy Includes Laughter

My lovely and talented wife, Heather, never laughs at these guys, but that doesn't stop me from inflicting them on her from time to time. This episode, however, had her laughing and crawling out of her skin at the same time. It's one of the funniest things I have watched in a while.

Maybe the internet exists to watch other, braver, people sample Jelly Fish Jello.


Monday, August 24, 2015

Great Conteporary Text on Preaching

Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015).

I am a preacher, but I have a hard time listening to most sermons. I have learned over the years that I end up being frustrated or disappointed when I listen to most preachers speak to congregations on Sunday mornings. Often I am disappointed by the lack of biblical exposition and depth, and every now and then I am offended by the trite manner the Bible and its truths are handled.

Maybe I am too picky. Maybe I am a bit of an elitist when it comes to good sermons and what they ought to do. But I do know I have a conviction that handling the Scriptures for congregations and communities is a big deal and it demands hard work and prayer. Even though some pastors often sound like second-rate stand up comedians when they talk there is nothing silly about what we do when we preach.

If you are a pastor and you are not learning at least one or two things from Timothy Keller, let this book on preaching be your starting point. Having preached for decades in the spiritual clay of the north eastern United States and many of those in the middle of Manhattan, he has a lot to offer pastors on the ins and outs of effectively preaching the gospel to our culture. His book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, is broken into three sections where he addresses “Serving the Word,” “Reaching the People,” and “In Demonstration of Spirit and Power.”

Keller makes one thematic point a few times in the book in a few ways: the preacher’s job is to be simultaneously faithful to Scripture and to God’s people. To that end he does a wonderful job defending the centrality of expository preaching, discussing how to make us of the whole of Scripture to preach the gospel and Jesus Christ, preach to a post-Christian culture, and providing an insightful outline of what it means to preach from the heart and to the heart. As a Pentecostal I find it ironic that the shortest portion of the book has to do with preaching in the power of the Spirit, but there is still much to commend in that he says.


I do not think I exaggerate if I say that almost every preacher would do good to read this book and put much of it into practice. As with all texts on preaching and communication there will be suggestions that do not fit everyone’s gifts and personality (and Keller recognizes that), but there are still plenty of marvelous and effective principles contained in each section.  If you have not paid attention to your craft in a while, or if you have spent too much time trying to sound like the guys and gals on TV, this book is a must.

If you find my comments helpful, please say so on Amazon.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Some Clarity on Tax Exemption, Part Two

In the previous post, I tried to make the case that non-profits are subject to several forms of taxation and that taxing non-profits further will either put a lot of good works out of business, or result in targeted discrimination. Now for a brief argument from religious liberty.

Tax Exempt Status is a Necessary Component of Religious Liberty
In a twist of mental gymnastics, those who fight most ferociously for the separation of church and state are now fighting the hardest for the entanglement of church and state.

Taxation is a form of behavior modification. It is an economic axiom: if you want less of a behavior you tax it, if you want more of it you tax it less. For example, states and the Federal government levy what are called "sin taxes" under the presumption that gambling, smoking, and drinking are detrimental to society. (Handily, they can also be taxed at high rates and people still engage in those activities leading to higher revenues.) On the other hand, the Federal government provides tax write offs for many activities including home ownership and charitable contributions. The tax write offs are intended to encourage certain behaviors. Plenty of candidates over the last 20 years have included tax benefits for renewable energy use in their platforms because they want to encourage the purchase of electric cars and the installation of solar panels. Behavior modification.

As such, the tax exemption of religious organizations operates under the principle of not letting the nose of the camel into the tent. If you let the nose in, the whole camel follows. Taxing religious organizations is a great way to allow the Federal government and the State to begin regulating the speech and behavior of churches. The Supreme Court has said so. In the 1970 Waltz ruling, the Supreme Court said that tax exemption for churches, "creates only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state and far less than taxation of churches. [An exemption] restricts the fiscal relationship between church and state, and tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other....the power to tax involves the power to destroy." Taxing churches and religious organizations is a fast-track to entangling church and state, severely reducing religious liberty and speech, and creating a state-sponsored church.


If the Federal Government and the State begin holding certain ad hoc guillotines over the heads of religious organizations, the inevitable consequence will be churches doing one of two things: engaging in civil disobedience, or capitulating and becoming a de facto extension of the state's politics. And history tells us that every time churches capitulate to the state's demands, the pews grow cold when the dust settles the culture realizes that those churches were faithless and lacked the courage to fight for their beliefs.

Photo from USHMM

Some Clarity on Tax Exempt Status, Part One

More than once in our not-so-small hamlet of Colorado Springs public initiatives have been launched to tax non-profits in order to make up for the revenue shortfall the city consistently faces. Each time it happens the public argument is something to the effect that churches need to pay their fair share. Currently, with the SCOTUS ruling on Same Sex Marriage (SSM), the argument is being made that religious organizations ought to lose their tax exempt status because they (in reality, many but not all of them) do not conform to the newly minted SCOTUS ruling. Again the point is made directly - churches need to "start paying taxes."

I think a little clarity is in order (though, I must admit to a great deal of skepticism about the effectiveness of argument in our highly emotionalized culture right now).

We Pay Taxes
I am a pastor of a church and I helped to start a charitable non-profit that provides long-term support, education, and ministry to girls rescued from human trafficking in the US. I currently run and have run non-profits that own property, operate under state and federal tax guidelines, and hire people. We pay several forms of taxes and our employees pay taxes. We are exempt from a fairly narrow set of tax categories for which charitable non-profits must apply and prove they are eligible, and for which churches agree to a trade-off with the Federal government represented in the restrictions of the Johnson Amendment.


Having said that, I will say that the exemptions we are eligible for are a great help to churches and non-profits. We often operate on smaller budgets and different income structures than a typical business, so several tax categories are a significant barrier to entrance and a barrier to efficient non-profit work. For example, many people who give to non-profits are careful to pick organizations who can prove that the vast majority of their gifts go to the work and not to overhead. Overhead includes things like staff, taxes related to hiring staff, office needs, and office space. If your favorite non-profit began paying property tax, the percentage of your gift going directly to the work would necessarily decrease, often significantly.

There Are More Non-Profits Out There Than You Know
Did you know that many non-profits are news organizations and journalists' offices? Are you cognizant of the neighborhood recreation centers that run on paper thin budgets and are non-profit? Do you know that universities and colleges (with very rare exceptions) are non-profits? So, returning to the well-meaning but ignorant people in Colorado Springs who sponsored those petitions to remove tax exempt status from non-profits, when confronted with these details they did not know that they would likely put the liberal Peace And Justice Mission office out of business or shutter the soup kitchens run by the Catholic church they supported so much.

This brings us to the present push and the inherent tyranny contained within it. The current proposal is to remove tax exempt status from religious organizations, and more specifically, religious organizations that do not tow the line on SSM. So maybe the neighborhood community center is not affected, but what about the Episcopalian church and Southern Baptist church across the street from each other? The current argument has the implication that one is favored over the other for an ad hoc reason. One accepts SSM and the other does not, and based on that alone proponents of SSM want to discriminate and do harm. Why SSM? Why not the SCOTUS rulings on gerrymandering? Or the SCOTUS rulings on abortion, Civil Rights legislation, campaign finance reform, and so forth? In other words, there are hundreds of issues that could be picked on to discriminate with the power of Federal and State taxation, but this one has been picked by people drunk with current cultural power and who want to strike while the iron is hot.

As this particular form of tax discrimination moves forward be attentive to this form of argument, "You can keep your tax exempt status as long as you agree with us about X." This is tyranny and coercion pure and simple, which brings us to our last point.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Can I Love The Sinner And Hate The Sin? It's The Only Way To Love

There has been a lot of talk recently about the Christian doctrines of love and sin, mostly in the shape of, “I no longer can keep up the unbiblical fa├žade of loving the sinner and hating the sin. The Bible calls me to love, and that is what I am going to do.”

While I believe deeply that we are called to love in extravagant and radical ways – ways shown to us by God in Christ – I believe the recent talk about refusing to see people as sinners actually strips the Christian of the ability to love in this deep and transformative way. Contrary to the assertion that “love the sinner and hate the sin” is not in the Bible, it is necessary to the character and nature of God, and is, ironically, all over Scripture. It turns out that you are unable to love the sinner without hating the sin.

The first and most readily available analogy is the way a good parent loves their child. Any parent will tell you that they often live in the tension of loving their child while hating the things they do or the character traits within them that cause them harm. Have you ever known a parent in the middle of struggling over a rebellious teenager? In theological language, that is nothing more than loving the person prone to sin while hating the things in them that cause them harm. In fact, you might say the two sides of that parental disposition IS love. If you disagree, then you will need to convince most of the humans you know that a parent who allows their child to do each and every thing that will cause them short-term and long-term harm is a good parent. Obviously they are not.

And so it is with God. It is common for Scripture to speak of what God hates and why he hates it. Modern evangelicals don’t often think or speak in these terms, but maybe that is because many of us have been trained by our churches to conform the Bible to our current proclivities instead of the other way around. A small sampling of the Bible talking about God hating sin:

Isaiah 61:8 For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

Jeremiah 44:4 Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, ‘Oh, do not do this abomination that I hate!’

Zechariah 8:17 do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord.

Christ-followers are people who belong to this kind of God and are thus expected to learn to interact with the world the way God does. As a consequence, we are expected to have the same kinds of loves and hates that God has.  For example:

Micah 3:1-2 And I said: Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel!
Is it not for you to know justice?— you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin from off my people and their flesh from off their bones,…

Ezekiel 35:6 therefore, as I live, declares the Lord God, I will prepare you for blood, and blood shall pursue you; because you did not hate bloodshed, therefore blood shall pursue you.

Amos 5:15 Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate…

And then there is the passage in the New Testament which is cited most often to promote the idea of loving the sinner and hating the sin:

Jude 21-23 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

Here Jude makes a direct link between the love of God, our acts of love and mercy, and snatching people away from the sin that so easily destroys us.

All in all, the evidence is pretty overwhelming – the best way to love people who sin is to hate the things in their life that cause destruction – sin.

This is radical love. To refuse to acknowledge or talk about sin is a weak and easy way to like people, but it is not biblical love. God’s love is often very hard to live out. If you have ever loved someone who is not exactly like Christ, you have loved someone who needs the kind of Christ-like love that makes sacrifices for sin and remains loving through all kinds of trials and rejections. Jesus loved Judas. Not in a way that refused to hate the sin, but in spite of the sin. Jesus loved the woman caught in adultery when he simultaneously saved her life and told her to go and sin no more. Jesus loved disciples who often misunderstood him. God showed steadfast love to a nation of people who were persistent in their rebellion against him.


God’s kind of love recognizes sin and rebellion in the human heart and shows unconditional love anyway. This is the kind of love the world needs to see in the church. This is the kind of love I am required by my God to show. This is the kind of love I need – the love that sees my sin and saves me anyway.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Links With Little Context

A Warning from Canada: Same-Sex Marriage Erodes Fundamental Rights
by  Dawn Stefanowicz

I am one of six adult children of gay parents who recently filed amicus briefs with the US Supreme Court, asking the Court to respect the authority of citizens to keep the original definition of marriage: a union between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others, so that children may know and may be raised by their biological parents. I also live in Canada, where same-sex marriage was federally mandated in 2005....

In Canada, freedoms of speech, press, religion, and association have suffered greatly due to government pressure. The debate over same-sex marriage that is taking place in the United States could not legally exist in Canada today. Because of legal restrictions on speech, if you say or write anything considered “homophobic” (including, by definition, anything questioning same-sex marriage), you could face discipline, termination of employment, or prosecution by the government.


Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Are Not Like Race: Why ENDA is Bad Policy
by  Ryan T. Anderson


Sexual orientation and gender identity are conceptually different from race, and beliefs about marriage as the union of man and woman are conceptually and historically different from opposition to interracial marriage. Adapted from testimony delivered on Monday March 16 before the United States Commission on Civil Rights....

These classifications are problematic. Paul McHugh, MD, University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Gerard V. Bradley, Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, explain:

Social science research continues to show that sexual orientation, unlike race, color, and ethnicity, is neither a clearly defined concept nor an immutable characteristic of human beings. Basing federal employment law on a vaguely defined concept such as sexual orientation, especially when our courts have a wise precedent of limiting suspect classes to groups that have a clearly-defined shared characteristic, would undoubtedly cause problems for many well-meaning employers.


Post-Christianity & the Culture of Death
By ROD DREHER

A reader writes:

I’m a longtime reader of your blog, and while your writing has certainly made me, an agnostic/atheist, more sympathetic towards religion and its followers than I was as a callous teenager and young adult, this one article had the effect of making me practically jump in my car and speed to the nearest church.  It’s horrific, and I try not to use that term lightly.

She’s talking about a piece in the current issue of The New Yorker about the euthanasia culture in Belgium.  It is as horrifying as she says it is, and about as pure an expression of what John Paul II called the “Culture of Death” as you can imagine in our time. Euthanasia, the magazine reports, is thoroughly mainstream in Belgium, and embracing it has become a sign of what it means to be modern.


Evolutionary Computing: The Invisible Hand of Intelligence

Darwinian evolution is characterized by an utter lack of guidance; it is the "blind watchmaker" of Dawkins. It doesn't know where it's going. It doesn't know it is building a watch. It doesn't know what a watch is. There is no goal, no plan, and no target in "natural evolution." Mutations bounce around against environmental constraints, and whatever happens, happens.

William Dembski and Robert Marks have shown that no evolutionary algorithm is superior to blind search -- unless information is added from an intelligent cause, which means it is not, in the Darwinian sense, an evolutionary algorithm after all. This mathematically proven law, based on the accepted No Free Lunch Theorems, seems to be lost on the champions of evolutionary computing. Researchers keep confusing an evolutionary algorithm (a form of artificial selection) with "natural evolution."

It's Not As Easy As It Looks

In a recent interview with Ed Stetzer promoting a new book the popular pastor, Andy Stanley, said some rather provocative things about preaching (part 1 of 5). His book is about effective communication and when he was asked about what he thought of preachers who went through the Bible book-by-book and verse-by-verse, he answered:


Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible-- that is just cheating. It's cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn't how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There's not one example of that. 

All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. My challenge is to read culture and to read an audience and ask: What is the felt need? Or perhaps what is more important, what is an unfelt need they need to feel that I can address? Because if they don't feel it, then they won't address it.

Other parts of the interview linked above contain more information on his philosophy of preaching.

As I read this and other parts of the interview to make sure I was getting appropriate context (which may be one of the cardinal flaws in his view on expository preaching, but I digress), I am struggling not to say, "this is one of the dumbest things I have heard a pastor say in a long time." So I'm going to try not to say it.

I believe his view of expository preaching is dangerous for the church and for Christians, and here are a few reasons why.

To begin with, expository preaching isn't easy. Apparently he was taught to do it and did some of it when he was younger, and if that is the only exposure he has to the weekly grind of submitting to the narrative and logic of the text, he doesn't know what he is saying. Earlier in the interview he expressed his philosophy of leading people through a journey that includes the Bible (find a felt need, tell people why they need it fixed, pick a passage of Scripture, and finish with "wouldn't that be nice?"). Expository preaching is letting the narrative and argument of the text lead you through the journey, and that is often tough ground to till. Forget working through Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezra - try every chapter and verse of Acts. It isn't as easy as he says it is - at least not if you are trying to do the text and the people in the pews justice. So when he says it is cheating, he is flat wrong.

Then he appeals to Scripture to support his philosophy of communication above expository preaching. The problem is that Scripture does not teach or even model a single form of appropriate pastoral communication. People who say the kinds of things Stanley said often point to the parables as if those were the only things Jesus ever said. The New Testament is loaded with commentary on Old Testament Scripture, and it is clear within the text that the early church revered the epistles beyond the context of the original audience. In other words, though Ephesians is an occasional letter, it wasn't left there. It became holy writ for the entire church outside of the immediate context of the Ephesians' "felt needs" and their desire to have God meet them.

Stanley's vision of expository preaching reduces Scripture to a tool to be used by a clever speaker to touch on an exposed nerve of the listener. It is an instrument to be wielded to achieve a pre-determined result. (I preach expositorily, but have no quibbles with those to hold Scripture in high regard and preach by issue or topic. I am particularly worried about Stanley's apparent out-of-hand dismissal of submitting to the text on a weekly basis.) His is the Aristotelian and Roman model of rhetoric - know your audience and tailor your message to them in order to get them to respond the way you want them to. The problem for the pastor is that we are not given the right or the power to predetermine the outcome. Our variable is the work of God in people's lives, and we are not allowed to coordinate the outcome. We are tasked with rightly dividing and communicating the truth and wisdom of God and letting God do the work that needs to be done (I would cite Malachi 2:4-7 here, but Stanley might categorize that as not applicable to him at this point in life. That's too bad for Scripture - maybe it will catch up to him someday.) Stanley is just another pastor in a long line of American pastors who has apparently succumbed to an entirely corporate model of preaching - the only difference between the board room sales pitch and the sermon is a few carefully chosen verses from the Bible.

Christians raised and weaned on this model of preaching are trained to approach Scripture by waiting for it to submit to them and their "felt needs." They will be trained to read the Bible like the Farmer's Almanac or take it in like snippets of Oprah's advice. Over time peoples' habits and preferences will slide downhill, and they might learn that they can get the same kind of advice from non-preachers and avoid the stewardship campaign. On the other hand, Christians who learn to endure in faithfulness in all seasons of life learn to submit to the text no matter their "felt needs" and learn how to come to terms with a holy and glorious God who would rather their soul be right than their "felt needs" be met.

I really do hope and pray that the church Stanly pastors is full of the transformational power of God from week to week, and that people are being brought to the feet of a holy and great God. I just don't think it is smart or wise to say such ridiculous things about the discipline of letting the text, instead of perceived "felt needs," set the agenda for the pastor and the church.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Bonhoeffer, God, Failure, and Responsible Action

"I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best use of everything. I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us to resist in all times of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future. I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are turned to good account, and that it is no harder for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate, but that he waits for and answers sincere prayers and responsible actions."


Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter written the day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler's life. From Letters and Papers from Prison.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"Preachers ply their trade with buffoonery..."

"Christ did not say to His first congregation:
'Go preach idle nonsense to the world,'
but gave to them a sound foundation.

"And that alone resounded from their lips,
so that, in their warfare to ignite the faith,
they used the Gospel as their shield and lance.

"Now preachers ply their trade with buffoonery and jokes,
their cowls inflating if they get a laugh,
and the people ask for nothing more."

[Dante, Paradiso XXIX:109-117]

Quoted in, How Dante Can Save Your Life, by Rod Dreher